Abba Dorotheos’ Ascetic Works
A replete text; a compass for our
return route to the Holy Fathers’
Dogmatically complete and rich in living experience‚
it is offered to us like “solid” food‚ which
warms up and strengthens
all lost souls in the land of sluggishness
and lack of volition.
It opens up new horizons in the “self-suffiency”
of the knowledge of the spiritual people
of our generation.
On the Suffering of Temptation Calmly and Thankfully
138. Abba Poemen rightly said that, “The distinction of a monk is manifested in temptations”112. The person who truly comes to serve God must prepare his soul, as it says in the Wisdom of Sirach (2:1), for temptations. Thus, that he will never be surprised or disturbed by what happens, believing that nothing happens without the providence of God and where is the providence of God certainly what happens is good and for the benefit of the soul. For, everything that God does, He does for our benefit and because He loves us and has pity on us. We must, as the Apostle says, “In everything give thanks” (1 Thess. 5:18), for His goodness. We must never be troubled or narrow minded about anything which happens to us but we must calmly accept everything which happens with humility and hope in God, believing, as I have said, that everything that God does for us, He does because of His goodness and because He loves us. For this reason, all is well done and it is never possible for things to be better than the way God arranges them in His mercy.
139. If someone has a friend and is certain that his friend loves him, when he does something to cause him suffering, even if it is something that troubles him, he will believe that his friend acted thus because he loves him. He will never thinks that his friend wanted to harm him. How much more should we feel this about God who has created us, who from non-existence brought us into existence and who became Man and died for us. Everything He does is through His goodness and because He loves us. In the case of a friend one can conclude that he does something because he loves me and shows pity on me but evidently he did not have such wisdom as to know to arrange everything concerning me and for that reason, despite the fact that he does not want to, he harms me. We cannot say this about God because He is the source of wisdom and He knows everything that is beneficial for us and takes care of all matters concerning us up to the most insignificant detail. We could say, with our friend, that he loves us, is pitiful towards us and is wise enough to be able to arrange everything concerning us and yet he does not have the power to aid us in those things which are beneficial for us. We cannot say this about Got because He is omnipotent and nothing is impossible for Him.
Therefore, we know about God that He loves and shows pity on His creature and also that He is the source of wisdom and knows how to govern everything concerning us. Nothing is impossible for Him but everything is subject to His will. We must also realise that everything He does is for our benefit and we must accept it then with thankfulness, as we have said earlier as for a benefactor and a good lord even if it is something troublesome. For, everything is done with the right judgement and God, who is merciful, does not overlook even the smallest sadness that we suffer.
140. Very ofτen, a person may be doubtful about this saying, “And if because of the troubles a person suffers, he sins in his affliction, how can we say that everything which happens to him is for his benefit?” We would not have sinned in our distress if we had patience and we did not neglect to put up with some small sorrow or something unexpected. God does not permit anything to happen to us which is beyond our power, as the Apostle says, “God is faithful, who will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able” (1 Cor. 10:13). However, we have no patience, we do not want to labour a little and we do not accept things with humility. That is why we are broken down, and the more we try to escape temptations, the more they weigh us down. We lose our patience and we cannot then be delivered from them. There are certain people who for some reason swim in the sea. If they can swim properly then when a wave comes against them, they bow down under it and hide themselves beneath it under it passes. Thus, they carry on swimming free from danger. However, if they struggle against the wave it pushes them and throws them a great distance. Once they start swimming again, another wave may come. If they oppose themselves to it, it will again push them and throw them far. Thus, they are tired out and they do not progress. If, as I said, they bend themselves down under the wave and humiliate themselves under it, it passes without harming them and they can continue swimming as much as they desire. It is the same with the temptations. If a person endures temptation with patience and humility, it passes him by, without danger but if he remains afflicted, sorrowful, and considering everything as a reason for it, he damns himself and loads on himself the temptations. Thus not only is it not beneficial for him but he is harmed by it.
141. The temptations are profitable to the person that calmly endures them. Even if we are bothered by a passion, we must not be disturbed. If a person is disturbed when he is bothered by a passion this is a sign of ignorance, pride, not knowing his own condition and of idleness. The fathers say that we do not progress because we do not know our own measure and because we do not have patience in all our undertakings which we begin but we seek to obtain the virtues without labour. Why is that person who is under the dominion of passions surprised when he is troubled by a passion? Why is he disturbed when he gives away to them? When you have inside you a passion, why are you disturbed? You have them and you say, “Why do they bother me?” Instead endure it, struggle and pray to God because it is not possible for a person who has fallen to exercising his passions not to be troubled by them. As Abba Sisoes said, “Their tools are inside you. Pay them their pledge and they will leave you”113. When he says “the tools”, he means the causes. Since we have loved our passions and practise them, it impossible not to be prisoners of our passionate thoughts that lead us on even if we do not want to fulfil them, since we have voluntarily delivered ourselves into their hands.
142. This is what the prophet means when he says that Ephraim “oppressed his adversary” (Hos. 5:11 LXX), that is to say, his own conscience and he broke the judgement because he searched for Egypt and was unwillingly taken by the Assyrians (Hos. 7:11). What the fathers call “Egypt” is the bodily desire which inclines us towards bodily comfort and trains our nous to love pleasure114. The “Assyrians” are the thoughts which are subject to passions and which make our nous muddy and confused and fill it with unclean imaginations, leading it violently and unwillingly to the exercise of sin. Therefore if someone willingly gives himself up to bodily pleasures, even if he does not want to, he will come by force and with violence to the Assyrians and he will become a slave of Nebuchadnezzar. Knowing this, the prophet, with great pain said to men, “Do not go down to Egypt, what are you doing, miserable ones, humiliate yourselves for a little while, bow your shoulders, work and serve the King of Babylon and remain in the country of your fathers”. Again he urged them saying “Do not be afraid of the King, for God is with you to deliver you from his hand” (Jer. 42:11). Then he prophesied the ensuing sorrow if they were disobedient to God. He said, “If you go to Egypt you will be in an impasse and you will be slaves being abused and cursed”. They said to him, “We will not dwell in this land, but we are going into the land of Egypt, where we shall see no war, nor hear the sound of the trumpet, nor be hungry for bread” (Jer. 42:13-14). They went down to Egypt and they worked willingly for Pharaoh. Afterwards they were violently led to Assyrians and they served them unwillingly.
143. Consider well what I am saying. Before a person exercises a passion, even when his thoughts are mobilised against him, he is still in his own town, he is still free. He also has God helping him. Thus, if he humbles himself before God and bears his neighbour’s yoke with thanksgiving and struggles a little, God’s help will deliver him. However, if he evades the labour and sinks to the love of bodily pleasure then he is inevitably led violently to the land of the Assyrians and is made their unwilling slave. The prophet therefore says to them, “Pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar because your salvation is based on his life” (Baruch. 1:11-12). Nebuchadnezzar signifies someone who does not neglect the affliction that temptation brings, neither does he avoid it but endures it with humility like someone who ought to suffer. He believes that he is unworthy to be freed from the burden and that the temptation must remain established within him for a long period. Even if he cannot find the cause within himself and at the moment, he does not understand, he must realise that nothing in God is unjust or indiscriminate. Such was the brother who was afflicted and crying because God removed his temptation, “Lord am I not worthy to be distressed for a short while?” he said. It is also written that a disciple of a great elder was tempted by fornication. The elder seeing him in his struggle said, “Shall I ask God to lighten the battle for you?” The brother replied, “While I struggle, father, I see fruits of my labour. Rather ask God to give me patience”.
144. This is exactly how are the men who want to be saved. This is what it means to support the yoke with humility and pray for the life of Nebuchadnezzar. This is why the prophet says that, “On his life is based your salvation”. That which the brother said, “I see the fruits in myself from the labour” is the same as what the prophet said, “On his life is based your salvation”. The elder made this clear when he said, “Today I know that you have made great progress and that you have surpassed me”.
When someone struggles against the exercise of sin and begins to fight against his passionate thoughts, he humiliates himself, crushes himself, struggles and through the accompanying affliction, he is gradually purified and returns to his natural condition. Thus, as we have said, if someone is disturbed by a passion, it is from ignorance and pride. The best thing a person can do is to know his own situation in humility and to have patience, praying until God shows mercy on him. For if a person is not tempted and therefore does not see the sorrow which the passions cause, he will not fight to be free of them. In the Psalms, it says, “When the wicked spring up like grass, and when all the workers of iniquity flourish. It is that they may be destroyed for ever“ (92:7). The wicked which spring up as the grass are the thoughts which are subject to passions, because grass is weak and without power. When, therefore, the passionate thoughts flourish in the soul then all the workers of iniquity “spring up”, that is to say the passions which are to be destroyed forever. When the passions come to those who are struggling, they will be destroyed by them.
145. I would like you to understand what happens. Firstly the thoughts that are subject to passions arise, then they appear and finally they are destroyed. All this is known to those who struggle but we, practising sin and always cultivating our passions, know neither when the passionate thoughts arise nor when they appear so we cannot struggle against them but we are always down in Egypt engaged in the miserable work of making bricks for Pharaoh. Who will bring us to self-awareness of our bitter slavery so that we humble ourselves and are diligent to obtain mercy. When the sons of Israel were in Egypt working for Pharaoh, they made bricks and those who do this work are always bowed down. Their attention is always turned towards the earth. It is the same with the soul when it is captivated by the devil and practises sin. Its spirit is trampled down and it cannot ponder anything spiritual but the nous is always on earthly things, indulging in them. Thy built for Pharaoh from the bricks they produced three fortified towns: Pithom, Rameses and On (which is Heliopolis). These represent the desire for pleasure, avarice and ambition from which three passions every sin comes.
146. However, when God sent Moses to lead them out from Egypt and from the slavery of Pharaoh, he gave him still more work saying, “You are idle! Idle! Therefore you say, Let us go and sacrifise to the Lord” (Ex. 5:17). In the same way, when the devil knows that God is going to show mercy on a soul and relieve it of the passions either through His word of through one of His servants then the devil makes the soul’s burden heavier with the passions and its struggle more violent. Knowing this, the fathers fortified Man through their teaching and they do not allow him to be afraid. One says, “Did you fall? Get up and if you fall again, get up again”, and so on115. Another says, “The strength of those seeking to obtain the virtues is this: when they fall they must not be saddened but must be once again diligent”. Briefly, each one of them in their own way offers a helping hand to those who struggle with the enemy and are afflicted. They apply the Holy Scripture when it says, “Will they fall and not rise? Will one turn away and not return? (Jer. 8:4) Return, you backsliding children, and I will heal you backsliding, says the Lord” (Jer. 3:22). And many others like it.
147. But, when the hand of God fell heavy on Pharaoh and his servants and he sought to free the sons of Israel, he said to Moses, “Go, serve your Lord; only let your flocks and your herds be kept back” (Ex. 10:24). These denote the thoughts in your understanding that Pharaoh wanted to capture hoping that, through them he could draw back the sons of Israel to himself. Moses said to him, “You must also give us sacrifices and burnt offerings, that you may sacrifice to the Lord our God. Our livestock shall go with us; not a hoof shall be left behind” (Ex. 10:25-26). When Moses had led the sons of Israel out of Egypt, he took them through the Red Sea. God wanted to guide them to the seventy palm trees and to the twelve sources of water. He first brought them unto Marah. The people were troubled because the water was bitter and so they found nothing to drink. After Marah, God brought them to the place of seventy palm trees and of the twelve springs of water.
148. It is the same with the soul when it stops practising sin and passes through the spiritual sea. Firstly it will labour, struggle and be in great affliction and thus, through the sorrow it will come to the holy comfort because, “We must through much tribulation enter into the Kingdom of God” (Acts 14:22). The tribulations draw the mercy of God to the soul like the wind moves the rain. As the rain, if it falls very heavily when a plant is young and delicate, it will rot the plant and the fruit will be lost, while the wind will dry out a plant in part and secure it, so it is with the soul. Relaxation, carefreeness and comfort make it flabby and dissolute but temptations fortify it and unite it to God, as the prophet says: “Lord, in trouble they have visited You” (Is.26: 16). Therefore, as we have said, we must not be troubled or in desolation in time of temptation. We must be patient and thankful and always pray to God in humility so that He may show mercy on us in our weakness and protect us from every temptation to the glory of His name. Amen.
112: Abba Poemen, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, PG 65, 325B.
113: Abba Sisoes, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, PG 65, 393A.
114: Abba Isaiah, Oration IV, PG 40, 1117D. “Those who came out of Egypt had Moses as a guide … they are like those who are healed of the passions of the soul by the care of a physician”. St. John of the Ladder, The Ladder of Divine Ascent, PG 88, 648AB.
115: A brother asked Abba Sisoes saying, “What should I do, Abba, since I have fallen? The elder said to him “Get up again”. The brother said, “I got up again and I have fallen again”. The elder said, “Get up again and again”. Then the brother said, “Until when?” The elder said, “Until you are seized either in goodness, or in falleness. Man journeys on in the state that he was found in”. Abba Sisoes, Sayings of the Desert Fathers, PG 65, 404C.